Biomedical Research Loses Long-Time Ally With Death of Arlen Specter

Arlen Specter

Kyle Cassidy

The biomedical research community is mourning the loss of Arlen Specter, the former senator from Pennsylvania who was a loyal supporter of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) throughout his 30 years in Congress. Specter died yesterday, 14 October, from complications of cancer at age 82.

Specter, a moderate Republican for most of his career, was a tireless proponent of increasing the NIH budget. Together with Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), with whom he alternated leadership of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, Specter led an effort to double the NIH budget from 1998-2003. Specter also almost single-handedly added $10 billion in stimulus funding for NIH to the 2009 Recovery Act. He was able to push through the boost because he was one of only three Republicans who voted for President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus package.

A proponent of human embryonic stem cell research, Specter sponsored legislation that would have lifted restrictions on federal funding for hESC studies imposed during the George W. Bush Administration. He also created the Cures Acceleration Network, a program tucked into the 2010 health care reform bill aimed at speeding the development of "high need cures." CAN, which could receive up to $500 million a year, is currently funded at $10 million and sits within NIH's new translational medicine center.

In 2009, Specter switched to the Democratic party after he was challenged by a more conservative candidate aligned with the tea party. He was defeated in the Democratic primary election and left Congress in January 2011.

Specter's personal battle with illness fueled his passion for NIH. He had a brain tumor removed, underwent bypass heart surgery, and was treated for Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2005 and 2008. This past summer, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

NIH Director Francis Collins issued a statement yesterday calling Specter "a towering champion for biomedical research and the mission of the [NIH]. ... I truly miss Arlen's steady hand and vision for our agency."

Darrell Kirch, president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges, praised Specter's support for NIH funding as well as other federal research, stem cell studies and the peer review system. "Patients, their families, and the research community lost a legendary leader," Kirch said in a statement today.